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Making Distinctions About Lies

Much like Al Gore, the media have responded to the swing in the polls toward George W. Bush by moderating their partisan ardor between the first and second debates. Gores's tall tales have (finally) become an issue for the press. It doesn't mean, however, that they're handling it correctly.

One developing media strategy in the spin around the second debate is to fuzz over Gore's wild exaggerations and lies by trying to blur any distinctions between Bush and Gore on the issue of truthfulness.

The morning after the Wake Forest debate, ABC's Jack Ford pointed out to Governor Bush that he had erred in asserting that the three assailants in the grisly pickup-dragging death of James Byrd in Texas are not all getting the death penalty, since one got life in prison. "The question people now ask is, is that, however, the kind of error you've criticized the Vice President for making?" Ford asked the same question for Gore: "Is that the type of error, the type of mistake that the Bush campaign has criticized you for making?"

No. This media attempt to blur the difference demands a short primer on the distinctions of questionable campaign speech.

1. The Flub. Bush's Byrd boo-boo is a good example of this, just a goofy brain freeze, like Al Gore's reference to the "new President of Serbia," when he meant Yugoslavia. These goofs are not deliberate or calculating. They're not even important. Unless the problem is endemic to a candidate - and it isn't for either - it deserves minimal attention.

2. The Wonky Detail. Do the richest one percent get 22 percent of the Bush tax cut, or 44 percent if you factor in the death tax? Democrats and some of their media friends responded to Gore's goofs by pulling out the argument that Bush's wonky details are factually wrong, and more important than Gore's bald-faced lies. Time's Margaret Carlson, for example,, has stated as objective truth that Bush is guilty of "larger distortions - about skewing his tax cuts, raising less money than Gore for his campaign, giving more seniors drug coverage."

Partisans often completely disagree on estimates of plans that extrapolate years into the future and are governed by innumerable variables. Statistical reports on past policy outcomes can be factually wrong; future projections can't.

3. The Exaggeration. Now we're getting serious. They come in two categories, political and personal. Democrats correctly fault Bush for the political exaggeration that Texas test scores have improved on his watch, when statistics are so slow in coming that most of the numbers come from before he was elected.

Gore's propensity to exaggerate is personal (Tipper and I inspired "Love Story"; I swore on my sister's death bed to fight tobacco forever; I was fired upon in Vietnam; I put city officials in jail as a newspaper reporter; I was sung to sleep with union commercial jingles.) And it is political (I "took the initiative to create the Internet"; I co-sponsored the McCain-Feingold bill; I was present at the creation of the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Strategic Petroleum Reserve).

There's a smidgen of truth in all these statements, yes. But there's also a disregard, a lack of interest, in accuracy. That clearly becomes a character issue. And when the quantity of exaggerations reaches epidemic proportions, as it has with Gore, it ought to be regarded by political observers in the press as serious stuff indeed.

4. The Bald-Faced Lie. It's the whopper, the deliberate decision to deceive. Gore's problem metastasized with his story placing himself at the fires in Parker County, Texas in 1996 with Federal Emergency Management Agency head James Lee Witt. Media buddies suggested it wasn't wrong, since he'd traveled to Texas with a Witt deputy. Not so. Gore not only didn't travel with Witt in 1996, he never went to the Parker County fires. He went to Houston, hundreds of miles away, two years later, for something else.

The Buddhist Temple story (I never knew it was a fundraiser) is another lie. And so is the Iced Tea Defense, that a White House bathroom break must have prevented him from learning what kind of fundraising calls he was making from his office.

But nothing Bush has said is more dishonest than this Gore sentence late in the second debate: "I'd like to see eventually in this country some form of universal health care, but I'm not for a government-run system." Al Gore, simply put, is a liar.